Locals react to new condos

My local Facebook community group is a treasure trove of unfiltered NIMBY and YIMBY sentiments. I’m creating a “nimby” tag for blogs I write about them.

This FB post went up last week about some proposed townhouses that would be build on what is currently an ugly empty paved area of land on the side of a highway.

There were 40 “likes” and only 5 angry face reactions. Given some of the vitriol I have seen against building previously, I was surprised at how many people reacted positively. This can’t be treated as a scientific poll, but the fact that so many people bothered to say they approve was interesting to me.

Most of the land in our city is zoned for single-family detached houses, meaning most of it looks more like what people call suburbs.

Here’s what people said in the comments:

“I like the look. I also like Chaise’s term ‘vibrancy’.”

“ I wish they weren’t going to be so tall.” (Note that they are not tall. Most of this town used to be one-story 1-bathroom ranch houses, and there is a lot of nostalgia for those tiny houses.)

“Why are we junking up our downtown with condos.” (That one got 8 likes, and someone replied “because they sell.” Isn’t it astounding that someone would call this “junking”?)

“Almost Anything built in that location is a step in the right direction.” (8 likes)

Some people complained that this is not adding “affordable housing” to our city because these units are expensive. I might post more explicit debates over affordable housing in the future.  

Apparently, currently, there isn’t much opposition to developing an empty lot on the side of the highway with a few expensive units. There has been a WAR for the past year after a proposal to increase the density of housing closer to downtown. Anti-development types are angry that the city council is not doing more to block new building.

The prospective developer for this empty weed lot needs approval from the city council. Our city elections last month became rather contentious. It was, in part, a struggle between people who want to preserve curbs and doors just as they were in 1970 versus newer younger residents who are more pro-development.

Twitter flags versus censorship

Throughout this semester, I have asked some students in my data analytics class to think about how data is relevant to current events. Undergraduate Jack Brittle wrote this article about data and election news.

Sometimes public attention moves on quickly after an election is over. Today, on November 15th, voting and messaging is still being debated. It was a month ago on October 14th that Twitter locked up the digital platform of the New York Post, a right-leaning newspaper.

This was an important development in the debate about whether tech companies have the authority to censor posts written by users.

Twitter initially said that linking to the Post stories violated the social-media company’s policies against posting material that contains personal information and is obtained via hacking. As the story broke, Twitter began preventing users from tweeting the stories. Twitter locked the Post’s account, saying it would be unlocked only after it deleted earlier tweets that linked to the stories.” (Wall Street Journal). Twitter suspended a major American newspaper. This move is viewed by some as a direct threat to the freedom of the press. Twitter and other major tech companies came under fire for their ability to manipulate and control media. After major pressure and backlash, Twitter released the account back to the New York Post. “Twitter on Friday unlocked the New York Post’s Twitter account, ending a stalemate between the social-media company and the newspaper stemming from the latter’s publication of stories it said were based on documents obtained from the laptop of Hunter Biden. “We’re baaaaaaack,” the Post’s Twitter account tweeted on a Friday afternoon, just minutes after Twitter said that it was reversing its policies in a way that would allow the Post to be reinstated.” (Wall Street Journal).

It seems that Twitter backed down in that instance. The fundamental question has not been resolved. Should Big Tech censor material on their platforms?

First, there is a school of thought that believes Twitter has the right to control the flow of information on its platforms. Companies like Twitter are not breaking any laws by doing this. Do they not have the right to support and defend certain social causes? By only allowing users to see certain opinions and facts, Twitter can choose to support different policies. It’s not laws but our expectation of media that leads to controversy. Twitter should allow a free flow of information in order to create an open marketplace of ideas.

However, a new difficulty arises because of “fake news”. Now more than ever, media can be manipulated to create certain storylines by nefarious users. According to studies, “fake news” spreads nearly six times faster across digital platforms that real news stories. This leaves Twitter between a rock and a hard place. Do they control information spreading on their site and risk censoring the wrong material, like some consider to be the case of the New York Post article? Or do they take a hands-off approach, allowing all stories to have a place in the arena?

These giant tech firms have unprecedented power. Not only are they gaining massive amounts of data about people and firms, they also have the unique ability to shape their users’ outlook on a variety of ideas and events. These data giants are struggling with how to manage these capabilities and will no doubt continue to update and reform policy.

A example of evolving policies is the treatment of President Trump since November 3rd. Since election day, Donald Trump, has tweeted challenges to official vote counts. Trump has not only claimed voter fraud but also claimed he has won states where vote counts favor Joe Biden. Twitter has since developed a flagging system that adds a note on any tweet that Twitter deems misleading. Instead of censoring the president by locking the entire account, there are flags warning about disinformation. This system seems to be an improvement over previous ways Twitter has handled misleading information. It allows users to see all information but also be warned about potentially questionable information. I expect these policies to continue to evolve as tech companies grapple with the difficult task of managing the flow of information.

When will computers accurately predict elections?

Why can computers beat humans at chess but not predict election outcomes with great precision? Experts in 2020 mostly forecasted that Biden would win by a large enough margin to avoid the kind of quibbling and recounts we are now seeing. I don’t write this as a criticism of the high-profile clever Nate Silver, or any other forecaster. I’m thinking through it as a data scientist.

First, consider a successful application of modern data mining. How did AlphaZero “learn” to play chess? It generated millions of hypothetical games and decided to use the strategies that looked successful ex-post. AlphaZero has excellent data and lots of it.

If we think about actual election outcomes, there aren’t enough observations to expect accurate forecasts. If each presidential election is one observation, then there have only been about 50 since the founding hundreds of years ago. No data scientist would want to work with 50 data points.

You can’t say “in the years when ‘defund the police!’ was associated with Democrats, the GOP presidential candidate gained among married women”. There has only ever been one presidential election when that occurred. Judging by what I have been observing of the DNC post-mortem on Twitter in the past week, that might not happen again. See this tweet for example:

I know very little about political analysis. Only from what I know about data science, I would imagine that computers will get better at predicting the outcomes of races for the House of Representatives.

House representatives serve 2-year terms. There are over 400 House elections every 2 years.

Think about this over one decade of American history. There are actually more than 400 representatives in the house, but let’s imagine a “Shelter” of Reps with 400 members for ease of calculation.

In one decade, there are usually two presidential elections. That means we get 2 observations to learn from. In the same decade, there would be 400×5 “Shelter” elections. That yields 2,000 observations, which is considered respectable for the application of data mining methods.

One application of such a forecasting machine would be to determine which slogans are the most likely to lead to success.

Huge Prison Population in the U.S.

During some general reading on finance, I ran across the following two information-rich graphics from Hoya Capital on the U.S. prison population. On the first graph, the blue areas show the absolute numbers, and the green line shows the percent incarceration rate. A rate of 0.5% comes to 500 prisoners per 100,000 population.

This graph shows a huge rise in the state and federal prison population between 1980 and 2000. There seems general agreement that much of that increase in the prison population is due to mandatory sentencing laws, which require relatively long sentences. In particular, “three strikes and you’re out” laws may demand a life sentence for three felony convictions, if at least one of them is for a serious violent crime. Another factor was the increased criminalization of drug use (possession), in addition to drug dealing.

The graphic below shows the particular classes of crimes of which inmates of the state and federal prison systems have been convicted. The largest single category is violent crimes, but other types are significant, such as drug and property crimes, and “public order” crimes. Public order crimes include activities such as prostitution, gambling, alcohol, child pornography, and some drug charges. This graphic also includes the large number of people in local jails, most of whom are imprisoned awaiting trial or sentencing.

The total number of people under legal supervision in the U.S., including probation and parole, is over 6 million:

Source: Wikipedia

The U.S. has by far the largest official prison population in the world, and the highest incarceration rate. The following graph from Wikipedia depicts incarceration rates for several countries or regions as of 2009:

Most developed countries have incarceration rates of around 100-200 per 100,000, which is where the U.S. was in about 1970. The relatively high rate for Russia is attributed in large part to strict “zero tolerance” laws on drugs.

Again, the main driver for the high rates in the U.S. is the long sentences, driven by mandates. Wikipedia notes that there are other countries, including some in Europe, which have higher annual admissions to prison per capita than in the U.S. However, “The typical mandatory sentence for a first-time drug offense in federal court is five or ten years, compared to other developed countries around the world where a first time offense would warrant at most 6 months in jail… The average burglary sentence in the United States is 16 months, compared to 5 months in Canada and 7 months in England.” 

Policy debates on this topic continue. Obviously, we want to protect society from dangerous predators, but the direct and indirect costs to society for this level of incarceration are high. It seems like an area which is ripe for reform of some kind, though I do not claim to have a novel proposal.

Strange overnight switch in 2020 election betting markets

I share this tweet because it provides a good visual of a strange event last night. As results were coming in at night in the US, there was a sudden huge reversal. For months the markets had predicted a Biden win. Throughout the night there was some wild speculation in which some buyers were willing to bet Trump would win. Around the time respectable people start waking up in the US, the market flipped again. I hear some people saying on Twitter that they regret no buying during the night. Near 5am Eastern Time that Trumps chance of winning went back down under 50%. That is also when new information came in showing that Biden would likely win Wisconsin.

At the time I write this, votes are still being counted. It is expected that the ballots still to be counted will mostly give votes to Biden. The “blue wave” did not materialize in 2020. If Joe Biden wins the presidential election, it will not be with the overwhelming mandate that some expected.

Economists often promote using betting markets to get predictions of the future. There are lots of applications beyond politics. These high profile elections bring attention to betting markets. Maybe people will begin relying more on them in other fields. I think betting on temperature increases and rising sea levels would be interesting and useful.

The New Social Media Influence in the 2020 Presidential Election

Joy: I’m not an expert in elections or social media (unless having a Twitter habit counts). I asked Kate Zickel who manages political online accounts professionally to write about the current election:

It’s no secret that social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have had a tremendous influence on political elections in America since their infancy in the mid 2000’s. While the exact impression of these platforms can be difficult to measure, it’s clear that their impact in 2020 is greater by far than in previous election cycles.

Data from SocialBankers reports that “While President Donald Trump’s use of Twitter has been widely acknowledged, and certainly had a tremendous impact on the outcome of the 2016 elections, former Vice President Joe Biden has actually surpassed the President in many key engagement metrics.” This includes the nearly 30 million American voters that comprise the largest percentage of Twitter’s user base at nearly 20%.

The New York Times’ Ben Smith recently explained how media and tech companies have evolved back into their roles as information gatekeepers leading up from the 2016 election. Twitter, for one, recently began pinning notices to the top of all U.S. Twitter users’ timelines warning about misinformation on mail-in voting while Google said it’s been pushing to make its core search products including YouTube into hubs for authoritative information about electoral processes and results.

Pre-bunking is yet another new election influencing tactic used by many news and information sources to prevent the spread of false information before it starts… at least that’s the idea.

There is, however, a direct inverse relationship between broadcast ad spends and digital ad spend since the 2018 midterms. For the first time ever, spending on digital political advertising has slightly surpassed cable. Still, advertising spent on broadcast television — mostly at the local level — reigns supreme.

And while the influence of social media at the polls isn’t exactly new, the 2020 presidential election has set a new precedent in this era of information gatekeeping.

Election Forecast by 538

I teach a data analytics course and I asked some students to write blogs on data and current events. This blog is by Jake Fischer.

Every four years, the United States seems to turn upside down with the Presidential election. Now, the nation has turned its eyes to predictive analytics to understand the future of our country. As of October 22, the time of the writing of this post, Joe Biden stands an 87% chance of winning the critical swing state of Florida. This seems like a significant margin, but how did we come to this understanding using data? How reliable is this fivethirtyeight forecast?

For starters, the 87% chance of winning is based on a simulation run by data analysts in 40,000 different scenarios, all of which are measuring different factors from voter turnout to demographics to the economic forecast of the day. This prediction also factors in the polling averages for each candidate from 8 different polls, each of which is given a grade of reliability and weighted accordingly. Hundreds of factors come into play when predicting an election, yet confidence in many of these numbers is at an all-time low. So, in answer to question two, the outlook is anything but certain.

This doubtful outlook is because, although Biden wins 87% of the elections, this does not factor in the margin he wins by. When truly looking at the data, you see that over half of the outcomes weighed in this 87% are decided by less than 1% of votes. Unfortunately, this does not leave much more for a margin of error as is required in most data analysis. 

This very popular website does not factor in the impact that the website itself has on voters. With millions of people reading this data and seeing that Biden stands a 87% chance of winning, there is a high likelihood that voters will simply not turn up at the polls. This distinct percentage of voter turnout that may chose not to turn up at the polls because of analytics like this, would significantly impact the data set and could actually throw the results in the entire opposite direction, particularly when the decision is already being decided by such a slim margin.

Even though data analysis has turned into a booming industry, with more accurate results than ever before, there are some instances in which predictive analytics has placed significant limitations on the outcome of important decisions, such as the presidential election. I say all of this to not place doubt on analytics, nor the credibility of the FiveThirtyEight organization, but rather to remind readers of the important factor that is the human condition. At the end of the day it is important to exercise your right to vote no matter what side of the aisle you stand on, and without allowing polling data to influence your decisions. Vote!

American Moments

The presidential debate on September 29, 2020 was an embarrassment. I don’t remember what the candidates said because I just kept panicking thinking about the fact that other people could see what was happening. Didn’t some adult somewhere have a kill switch?

After an hour of listening, I expressed my sincere wish that this had never happened:

Tyler had a more nuanced take:

It’s not just true in America. Much of what passes for “debate” is just people firing off talking points at each other. Usually it’s not quite so obvious and awkward because there are not such clear rules being broken.

If there’s one thing that Americans agree on, it’s that you wait your turn in line. This is the most basic schoolyard etiquette. No matter how rich or famous you are, cutting in line is deeply resented. It felt like President Trump was not taking turns (so then it was strange for me to fact check this and see that Biden spoke only 2 minutes less total than President Trump).

If it were in my power to undo that night I would. However, a new podcast gave me some more to ponder about in terms of what Americans can be proud of. A lot of true news comes out about Americans making mistakes. That can be useful for others. Audrey Tang said of our misdeeds:

COWEN: … the United States, has made … many mistakes … What’s our deeper failing behind all those mistakes?

TANG: I don’t know. Isn’t America this grand experiment to keep making mistakes and correcting them in the open and share it with the world? That’s the American experiment.

Being open about our mistakes might be the next best thing to not making them in the first place.

Tang, a transgender Taiwanese computer policy expert, said something that I think Americans can be happy about.

Speaking of software, here’s a recent conversation with a 5 year old about what exactly is software and what does it mean to buy it. My son imagined that if I bought it in a store I must have picked something up off a shelf. (I could have explained that software is a nonrival good, but I think it’s too soon.)

Bullfighting with cars and economic development

In Ecuador we bullfight with cars, literally. It’s not a game, its the name we give to the strategy we use when we cross the street. As in a bullfight, you stand on the edge of the curb, waiting for the car/bull to pass and then run behind the passing car to succesfully cross the street.

This is true no matter what the right of way legislation says (pedestrians have the right of way, de jure, in Ecuador as elsewhere), and as such is a very useful example to teach the difference between law and legistlation when talking about institutions. Although the actual phrase has fallen out of fashion lately, along with the falling popularity of bullfights (cue nostalgic music for dying traditions), the strategy remains as strong as ever.

Both pedestrians and drivers are familiar enough with the strategy that it is not uncommon to see pedestrians motioning angrily at the innocent driver that stops at a crosswalk, usually a foreigner, so that the car can pass and they can safely cross the street. Drivers speed up at crosswalks where people are waiting to cross, not in attempt to run them over, but as a courtesy, so as to get out of pedestrian’s way faster (at least many people I’ve talked to have shamefully confessed that is why they do this!). When a driver does stop at a crosswalk to give the people on the sidewalk the right of way there is a marked delay and drivers and pedestrians are incovenienced by the delay.

From conversations I have had with people from other developing nations, the strategy used by drivers and pedestrians to cross the street is nearly identical to bullfighting with cars we use in Ecuador. Although it’s not the best possible strategy for coordinating street crossing, it is an effective strategy that allows for social coordination since everyone knows that game that is being played. It is an institution of the developing world.

Moving to the US for my undergraduate degree, many years ago, I packed this institutional baggage along with me, which led me to be late for the first class of the semester. When I arrived at the crosswalk in front of a big red brick building in Boston’s suburbs, a car pulled up to the stop sign and stopped. My mind was lost thinking about what college in the US would be like, as I patiently waited at the edge of the curb for the car to pass so that I could bullfight the car to cross the street. A sudden honk of the horn startled me as I looked around to see an angry driver waving for me to cross the street. Partly because I was startled, but also because I was used to bullfighting with cars, instead of jumping out immediatly to cross, my feet began to do an akward one-step-forward one-step-back shuffle. It wasn’t until I made eye contact with the now exasperated driver, that I was confident enough I wouldn’t be run over to gathered my courage, break out of my developing-country meet developed-country shuffle, and finally cross the street.

Talking to a classmate from Central America later that day, he told me that he was all too familiar with what had happened to me, and with the one-step-forward one-step-back shuffle being discovered by tourists, immigrants, and foreing students all over the developing world. Many years later I have informally confirmed the shuffle still exists in conversations with students that have traveled abroad to the US and Europe.

When I tell this story in class, the question of how to switch to the obviously superior institutions of the US and Europe for street crossing, where pedestrians have the right of way, de jure and de facto always comes up. For institutional change to succeed without pedestrian bloodshed, the new institution would need to become common knowledge rather quickly. In more technical language, bullfighting with cars is the equilibrium now in the developing world, and we know a better equilibrium exists, but the path to the new equilibrium is difficult to traverse.

When I ask what students would do to change to this superior equilibrium, the most common first response is very economic in orientation. Increase monitoring and impose larger fines they say. But given the costs of these policies in an already poor and corrupt institutional environment, I doubt this is necesarily the path to superior institutions, for street crossing or anything else. This is especially true when we consider the relative cost effectiveness of changing this institution vs. other potential institutional investments in the developing world.

I also doubt that larger fines and increased monitoring are the main reasons that superior institutions for street crossing have emerged in the developed world. I have rarely seen police monitoring crosswalks (with the excpetion of school crossings) in the US and Europe, and while fear of punishment is definately an important influence, I don’t know how heavily the expectation of punishment weighs on the minds of drivers in developed countries.

Institutions are important for development but we know very little about how to change them. More thoughtfull students also suggest that a superior institutional arrangement could be reached by convincing people to change their perceived payoffs of playing different strategies. The hard and long process of social entrepreneurship, seems more effective and conducive to robust success.

Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin Interview

Birmingham, Alabama Mayor Randall Woodfin is one to watch. The city of Birmingham has been on the rise, although like all cities Covid has presented a major setback. Here’s a Rolling Stone feature on his role in removing a confederate monument from the city in the summer of 2020.

My university president recently sat down for an interview with him (35 minutes long). Mayor Woodfin talks about influences that shaped him and how he ended up in politics. He emphasizes personal experience in community service and politics as customer service. They discuss governance in the time of Covid, both the health and financial angle.


There are lots of books on race going around these days. Mayor Woodfin’s recommendation is Caste.

The city does not get much attention on the international stage. The fact that we share a name with a much larger city in the UK is problematic in a way. It’s our fault, because we stole the name from them in an attempt to assert our dominance in the steel industry over one hundred years ago.